At a time when the European Union is prioritising cancer prevention, the Danish government is implementing a new decree on demolition and installation works involving materials containing synthetic mineral fibres, also known as mineral wool.
Earlier this month, the European Commission presented Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, which has been long awaited as a new EU approach to prevention, treatment and care of the disease. It pursues sustainable cancer prevention, which is more effective to save lives than any cure, with about 40 percent of cancer cases in the European Union being preventable, according to the Commission. A significant part of this prevention approach was reducing exposure to hazardous substances, in particular by improving the safety of products for consumers and professional users and reducing the exposure to carcinogens in the workplace. 52 percent of annual occupational deaths in the EU could be attributed to work-related cancers.
The Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive protects workers from risks arising from exposure at work. As part of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, the Commission has proposed to update it. The Commission said it plans to present a legislative proposal in 2022 to further reduce worker’s exposure to asbestos, to protect them from cancer risks, subject to the outcome of the ongoing consultation with the social partners.
The insulation material mineral wool was classified as a carcinogen until 2002. At that time, a newer version of it was declassified. It is now understood that the tests that led to the declassification were flawed. The tests, in 1996 and 2000-2002, were not conducted with mineral wool in the form that it is sold or used by consumers or commercially and there are campaigners who believe mineral wool should be re-tested, this time in the form that it is actually sold and used.
Mineral wool was essentially a replacement material for asbestos when that material was banned for being hazardous to health. Concerns are now emerging that mineral wool itself could present health risks that could be similar to those of asbestos. However, whereas asbestos is now illegal to use in Europe and some other parts of the world, mineral wool has not faced previously faced such legislation.
It remains to be seen whether the new Occupational Safety and Health Strategic Framework 2021-2027, in which the Commission wants set strong commitments to reduce occupational exposure, according to the Beating Cancer Plan, will also address these concerns about mineral wool.
In the meantime, Denmark has already begun applying a new decree on installation and demolition works with insulation materials containing synthetic mineral fibers (mineral wool) at the start of 2021. It applies in principle to so-called old mineral wool, which can be found in insulation installed before 1997, as well as new mineral wool. Producers must provide instructions for use with information on health risks and safety measures.
The work must be organised and carried out in such a way as to ensure that persons in the workplace are not exposed to dust from both old and new mineral wool. The obligation to conduct a workplace assessment to prevent the risk of cancer applies in principle to old mineral wool. Waste containing old mineral wool must in principle be collected, stored and disposed of in suitable closed containers, which must be marked. Non-compliance can be punished with up to 2 years imprisonment.
The mineral wool industry lobby in Denmark, the home of Rockwool, one of the biggest producers of the material, had intervened in the development of the new rules in June, after a government announcement that companies should replace mineral wool as far as possible with non-hazardous or less hazardous materials had reportedly caused confusion.